Projects signal robust UAE-China ties as Xi visits Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (left) meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Abu Dhabi, on July 19, 2018.
Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (left) meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Abu Dhabi, on July 19, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

On the outskirts of Dubai, a 1.2km-long sprawling mall in the shape of a dragon stands as proof of the growing relationship between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and China.

Dragon Mart, which opened in 2004, is China's biggest trading hub outside the mainland, selling Chinese goods from textiles and trinkets to the latest tech gadgets.

Dragon Mart 2 opened in 2015, and there are plans for four more Dragon Marts. They will form Dragon City, a retail, leisure and housing spot so huge it can fit 145 football fields. And this expansion mirrors Beijing's growing influence in the Middle East and Africa.

China's trade with the Middle East has surged over the past two decades from US$25 billion to more than US$240 billion (S$329 billion) today.

The UAE's share of this stood at US$53.3 billion last year, a 15 per cent rise from US$46.3 billion in 2016, and there are hopes this will grow further after President Xi Jinping visits Abu Dhabi this week.

Mr Xi sees the UAE playing a key role in his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that seeks to rekindle China's historic trading links over land and sea, including through infrastructure investments.

"Belt and Road cooperation is rooted in the history of the ancient Silk Road and dovetails with the development needs of Arab states, especially their economic diversification and industrialisation," he said in a newspaper article in the UAE on the eve of his trip, which will also see him travel to Senegal, Rwanda, South Africa and Mauritius.

Mr Xi also told Arab officials at a conference in Beijing last week that China will provide Arab states with US$20 billion in loans for economic development projects, at a time when Beijing is seeking to grow its foothold in the region.

More than 200,000 Chinese nationals now live in the UAE, which also hosts some 4,000 Chinese companies in multiple sectors from construction and trade to telecommunications and food and beverage.

This week also saw the inaugural UAE-China Week, a week-long celebration that will coincide with the Chinese New Year in future runs.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, said in a statement: "The UAE is the largest trading partner of China in the region. We seek to build long-term economic, cultural, trade and investment ties with China."

These ties are not confined to business and economics.

The number of Chinese learning the Arabic language has grown.

Mr Liu Xinlu, deputy dean of the Arabic studies faculty at Beijing Foreign Studies University, told Gulf News recently: "When I was a student, there were seven or eight Chinese universities teaching Arabic. Today, there are nearly 50 universities teaching Arabic."

He added: "Many people find commercial, cultural and political opportunities to deal with Arab countries."

The Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Centre for Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, which opened in China in 1994, has also seen nearly 1,000 students graduate.

And Chinese TV station CGTN Arabic seeks to get Beijing's viewpoint across to the Arab world.

Cultural and sports exchanges are also blossoming. In a first, six popular Chinese TV serials and two films will be dubbed in Arabic and telecast to the Arab world.

A Chinese cultural centre is also being planned in Abu Dhabi.

People-to-people contacts have also surged. Last year, Chinese tourist arrivals crossed the one million mark for the first time, and 3.5 million Chinese passengers transited through the country. UAE nationals have been given visa-free travel to China since last year.

Significantly, a growing pool of young Chinese professionals have begun to sink roots in the UAE.

One of them is Ms Yvonne Wang, a human resources (HR) specialist and director with a hospitality and leisure facility in Dubai, who came here to work in 2003.

"Dubai was earning a reputation on the international stage," she told The Straits Times. "And China was also doing the same."

She moved after her colleagues had done so, and realised it was an ideal place for career growth.

"I became a working resident and later I met my husband, also an HR professional," she said. "We now have a family and have become a part of the country's diverse diaspora."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2018, with the headline 'Projects signal robust UAE-China ties as Xi visits Abu Dhabi'. Print Edition | Subscribe